December 7, 2008

A new nutritonal unit?

I propose we get rid of all those grams and numbers and make a simplified unit for the Nutrition Facts labels: the Snicker.
We all know the Snickers Bar. It has a lot of sugar, fat and calories. But would you eat 11 of them? Well, if you pull up a chair at Romano’s Macaroni grill, you might. If you eat the spaghetti and meatballs, you will end up with almost 7 snickers of calories, 11 snickers of saturated fat and 3 snickers of carbohydrates. At Jamba Juice you could order a Chunky Strawberry—it has 2 snickers of both calories and sugar. Or you could go to Starbucks for a Pumpkin Spice Crème, with 2 snickers of sugar, fat and calories.
The snicker could put a whole new perspective on how we look at food…

Health and community

In a previous blog I questioned how community benefits health. I have since thought of an excellent example: Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA is a perfect example of a community formed exclusively for the purpose of treating disease. Started in 1935, AA was a last ditch effort to cure the incurable, alcoholics like Roland H., who were told there was no treatment for them other than a “vital spiritual experience.?
Roland was referred to the Oxford Group, a popular religious movement at that time. He and his friend Edwin T. found the strength in this community to overcome their hopeless problems with alcohol, and then turned to their friend Bill W., who was also suffering from unsuccessful treatment of a progressing problem. Bill W. is known as the founder of AA.
Today, AA has support groups in cities not only throughout the United States but throughout the world. It’s foundation of the 12 steps are used in numerous support groups to help people overcome their addictions before the addictions overcome them.

November 18, 2008

Alcohol sponsorship increases consumption

As a research interviewer, one of the key guidelines I tell subjects is, “Even if the answer sounds obvious, I still need to hear you say it.? Such is the case with a recent study from researchers in Manchester, England and Newcastle, Australia. According to researchers, sportspeople sponsored by the alcohol industry were more likely to be involved in binge drinking than those without alcohol industry sponsorship.
Despite studies on the relationships between sports, drinking and peer pressure, this was the first study directly related to alcohol industry sponsorship. In nearly half of the sponsorships, alcohol was supplied for free or at a discount.
"While finding that provision of free or discounted alcohol is linked to higher-reported drinking seems common sense, we needed to show clearly that this form of sponsorship occurs, and that it is actually associated with hazardous drinking," said Dr. Kerry O’Brien, the study’s author.

November 17, 2008

Leftovers--the new fast food

The Food Science and Nutrition Club at the University of Minnesota recently asked me to create a cooking class for students who want to cook cheap, nutritionally balanced food in a minimum amount of time. What immediately came to mind was to use one of those pre-roasted chickens right by the checkouts at the supermarket. I made six meals out of one bird.
Imagine the possibilities of this convenient bird. For day one, I picked up the bird and some groceries, went home, boiled a red potato cut into quarters while I changed into something comfortable, then I cooked some frozen vegetables in the microwave. By that time the potato was ready, so I mashed it with a half pat of butter and a quarter cup of reduced fat cheddar cheese (at 45 Calories per serving). Slice 1/3 of the breast, which should be between 4 and 5 ounces.
But as intensely exciting as a roasted chicken dinner sounds, the fun starts the next day. It is never good to hold leftovers for more than four days, according to the Department of Agriculture, so we must hurry to use the rest of the chicken. For lunch the next day, I made a salad with diced chicken, sliced apples, more cheddar cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. Anticipating boredom with chicken for dinner, I went on to chicken enchiladas in whole wheat tortillas with salsa verde, roasted corn with lime and chili, and black beans. The next day, chicken chili with corn muffins made a satisfying lunch. For dinner, I made curried chicken and vegetable over couscous. With one remaining chicken meal left for lunch, I could think of nothing finer than a classic chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat.
The point is that cooking good food for one isn’t very difficult. A little creativity is all that is needed to add some excitement to the menu. Each meal took less than 20 minutes to create, which is probably how much time it takes to drive to the drive-thru window. Plus, at a grand total of a little over $20 in groceries, each meal cost less than $4, and each meal was considerably lower in sodium and fat and higher in fiber than typical fast food.
For more ideas with leftovers, click here.

November 11, 2008

Worst drink in history

The ever-creative editors at Men’s Health magazine have delighted and surprised me with many health-related topics over the years. One of their many books, Eat This Not That published by Rodale Press, outlines a simple strategy to deal with real-world life and death fast food decisions. While it is considered by some nutritionists to be ludicrous to advise someone to eat the Quarter Pounder over the Whopper, many men use this advice in a ‘lesser of two evils’ reasoning.
It is, no doubt, more important to address alternatives to fast food than it is to justify eating an item because it has only a third of the saturated fat as its competitor. However, in the search for food in poor nutritional standing, the editors recently stumbled upon a goldmine.
The 32 ounce Baskin Robbins Heath Shake is a 2300 Calorie, 73 ingredient gut-buster with, according to David Zinczencko, editor in chief of Men’s Health magazine, the equivalent fat of 60 slices of bacon, the equivalent sugar of 13 ice cream bars and the equivalent Calories of 12 Krispy Kreme doughnuts!
Why do they call it common sense if it can be so hard to find? Hold the whipped cream on mine, please.

Got Milk or Not Milk?

Ever get caught in the crossfire? Check out these two sites:
I dare not step in the middle of this one, so you decide for yourselves. However, I tend to put less faith into the one with the spelling and grammatical errors…

November 4, 2008

Opinion—how sexy are whole grains?

Sex sells. If it sells fitness equipment and programs, why can’t it sell whole grains? We see late-night infomercials with sexy, fit models selling the latest ab machine, but they do not tell you that without the proper diet you are unlikely to uncover those hidden abs or lead that healthier lifestyle. So why not use sexy, fit models to sell whole grains?
Now I know that the supplement business is a goldmine, and we see models pushing what many nutrition experts consider unnecessary products on unsuspecting consumers. And meanwhile, the USDA, NIH and the grain industry are pushing millions of dollars into research and promotion of whole grains. We know whole grains are good for us, but what will make us choose them over French fries or white bread?
This is an entertainment-driven society. If you want to make an impact, hit them where it hurts and go up against the fast food ads at dinnertime. If Fred Flintstone can sell Fruity Pebbles and Chuck Norris can sell a book on politics, why can’t Marisa Miller or Giselle Bundchen sell a whole grain product to help you feel fuller, reduce the risk of some diseases and keep you regular? Who doesn’t want to hear her say she loves a regular guy? And could Miranda Kerr get people’s attention telling people about how important whole grains are to an underwear model to stay healthy but trim? I know a lot of people would be concerned about the message we are sending out concerning body image, but that message was already sent during the Victoria’s Secret ad. Besides, we’re talking about encouraging consumption of a healthy product as an important part of a balanced diet, not socially driven deprivation of models. Milk did it. Even if the government considers it unprofessional, why wouldn’t the cereal companies latch on? Check out this ingenious Irish littering video on YouTube—I thought it was going to be a body spray commercial at first. Do you think it would be outrageous or would it increase consumption?

November 1, 2008

Waist Size

A friend recently asked me what waist size has to do with type 2 diabetes risk. Studies have shown a correlation to waist measurement and type 2 diabetes risk. As one’s waist size increases, so does one’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes. That is because waist size is an estimate of the abdominal fat around our organs, known as visceral fat. Therefore, waist size has a statistically significant correlation to the estimate of type 2 diabetes risk. The key words here are estimate and risk. Since neither is an exact figure, they account well for any variations between individuals such as body fat deposition, frame size and genetic makeup. It would have probably been more accurate and statistically significant to correlate a more exact measure of visceral fat size or percentage to diseases such as type 2 diabetes, but we would have a harder time taking those measurements. For example, requiring everyone to undergo a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA scan, would be much more invasive to subjects and cost a lot more than using mere tape measures.
So does this mean that someone with a larger waist circumference has a higher risk of type 2 diabetes? In a general sense, yes, but not necessarily. It may be more accurate to state that as waist size increases independently of any other changes in our lifestyle or diet, our risk of type 2 diabetes increases—just another way of saying eat right and exercise.

October 28, 2008

Low fat salad dressing

Many years ago I took a week long course on nutritional cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. One of our objectives was to take traditional recipes and tweak them to add vegetables and whole grains, and reduce sugars, sodium and fat while retaining some of the desirable characteristics of the original. One of those recipes was a vinaigrette dressing.
Traditionally, vinaigrette dressings are made up of one part vinegar and three to four parts oil. Some modern versions use two parts oil and added sugar. Many commercial low fat dressings contain even less oil (or none) and a bunch more sugar. In class we simply replaced most of the oil with a slightly thickened veal stock called fond de veau lie. The lie (pronounced lee-YAY) has a consistency slightly thicker than olive oil, just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Using one part vinegar, one part extra virgin olive oil and two parts lie, the resulting product still had the flavors of the vinegar and olive oil, the lubricating effect of the oil and the melt-in-your-mouth consistency we crave in our food. Plus, it has gained a nice, subtle flavor made mostly of water, displacing two thirds of the fat.
To make a lie out of any stock, simply simmer the stock with just enough corn starch or arrowroot which has been mixed with cool water and stirred in slowly. Add a little at a time, checking the consistency as you go. Allow it to cool before adding it to your salad dressing.
Pick a stock which complements your meal. If you do not have time to make a nice stock, use a low sodium broth. It is also easy to find pre-made vegetable stocks instead of animal stock for vegetarians.

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October 27, 2008

Hey sugar, where ya been?

There is still a lot of controversy over fructose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I believe that at the root of this problem lies a misunderstanding that the two are vastly different. Even more important is the understanding that studies concerning fructose may not be relevant to the levels found in HFCS. Instead, as I have mentioned before, it is important for us to put this into perspective and look for real answers, not implied ones. Looking at fructose instead of sucrose or HFCS gives us an incomplete picture.
A little knowledge is dangerous. A good example would be trans-fats. In recent decades there was a concern over saturated fats, and generally vegetable oils were considered healthier than animal fats. This was an incomplete picture, as there are some vegetable sources, such as palm oil or coconut oil, which are high in saturated fats. Also, it seemed consumer friendly to market products such as solid shortening for baked goods and deep fryers as 100% vegetable oil. The truth was that these were altered from their natural state by adding heat, pressure and a catalyst to saturate them, with another by-product known as trans-fatty acids. Eventually people wised up and these products high in trans-fat were banned, so now we see replacement products which are made of saturated fat cut to a soft consistency with vegetable oils and monoglycerides. By looking at the wrong culprit, in this case the source of oil instead of its composition, we are left with a product which is still as bad, in this case trans or saturated fats. Have we made a healthier donut by first promoting vegetable fats for the deep fryer, then banning the trans-fats associated with them and replacing them with saturated fats? Or should we look at the deep frying process instead? Have we now reduced the amount of saturated fat in a donut that it is safer for our cardiovascular health to eat more of them?
The same applied to HFCS. Should we be concerned of the effects of fructose in HFCS, about the same as is in sucrose or table sugar, or should we be more concerned about sugar? Should we be concerned with the source of the sugar or its composition? Since sucrose and HFCS are similar in composition, perhaps we should group their detrimental effects together. Also, there seems to be a lot of concern over how much HFCS is in our food supply. Maybe we should look at the big picture and see how much sugar is in our food supply. The truth is sugar has been hiding all over our food supply. I’ve worked with chefs who load their salad dressings and sauces with large amounts of sucrose and honey. There is no HFCS in a typical kitchen, so is it better to use sucrose and honey because it is not HFCS? Is it better to use products with trans-fats because they are from a vegetable source?
Look at the ingredients of foods we use every day. If the first ingredient is not sugar, does that make us feel better as a consumer? How about if the next three ingredients are HFCS, dextrose and sugar. Should we be concerned that there is HFCS in it, or that three of the four largest ingredients are sugar? In a HFCS-free product, we may see brown rice syrup, but whatever the source of the sugar, whether it is brown rice, white rice or corn, you end up with glucose as the end product. So should we be not as concerned with these amounts of glucose because they do not contain fructose, or should we be concerned how much sugar we are taking in?
There is, however, one concern I see related to HFCS. There are byproducts we are discovering in its production which we are just starting to study, and some of these by-products may have detrimental effects. However, until we have conclusive evidence concerning these by-products in a physiologically plausible amount, I will not jump to any conclusions. So instead of worrying if there is too much fructose or by-products in what we consume, perhaps we should just cut back on all sugars, put down the soda or juice and have a nice cup of teawithout the sugar...

October 22, 2008

What is your definition of wellness?

I had an opportunity to visit the Cultural Wellness Center, a novel organization at the corner of Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue. It has worked to bring about a new sense of wellness to the area of the Powderhorn Park and Phillips neighborhoods. Opened in 1996, it strives to overcome social barriers to wellness, unleashing the power of citizens to heal themselves and build community.
The Cultural Wellness Center is based on the idea that individualism, loss of culture and loss of community is the root cause of illness. I did not understand this concept at all at first; I was taught that disease comes from bacteria, abnormalities in DNA or chronic exposure to toxins, just to name a few. However, my assumption of the definition of health is different from that of other people. According to Atum Azzahir, executive director and founder of the center, health includes not just the state of the body but also the mind and soul. To feel isolated in one’s community is stressful and can lead to a lack of security and eventually illness. This is the concept of health at the center.
I must admit that I am still skeptical about the center and its philosophy. Please feel free to comment on the center and their concept of health.

October 21, 2008

HFCS--why the fuss?

What’s all the fuss about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? Fructose has been linked to diabetes, gout and heart disease, just to mention a few. Should we be scared of it?
Actually, the right question is “How much of a threat is HFCS?? HFCS is made up of a maximum of 55% fructose. By comparison, table sugar, or sucrose, is made up of 50% fructose. All those facts you hear about fructose being bad for you are usually from studies using 65% or more fructose in the diet—you couldn’t even get that much fructose if all you ate was a constant drip of HFCS. I hope this puts it into perspective.
And how about those studies showing a correlation between HFCS consumption in the U.S. and obesity? Well, you could probably do a correlation between obesity and computer use, number of commercials on TV, global climate change or even number of automobiles on the road and still come up with a correlation. A correlation is not a cause; it is the statistically significant occurrence of two or more phenomena.
So instead of worrying about how much HFCS is in the food supply, perhaps it is more important to look at how much sugar we are getting in our diet.
See the ads from the Corn Refiners Association.

October 14, 2008

What exactly is fiber?

As a graduate student in nutrition, I get asked a lot of questions. People drill me with questions about everything from weight loss to herbal detoxification teas to high fructose corn syrup. But one thing it seems everyone is afraid to ask about is fiber--everyone except my friend Lenny, that is.
“Bill, why do beans make you fart?? he asked me one day over a hot bowl of chili. “I mean, I know it’s the beans, but why??
It all starts with a molecule named glucose. Glucose is the basic currency of sugar in the human body, a simple ring of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. This is our blood sugar and our primary source of fuel. Since our bodies do not make nearly enough glucose to live on, we must get it from other sources like plants. Plants produce glucose in large amounts and use it to store energy as different types of sugars, starches and fibers. The difference is in how the glucose is connected.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. It is typically one or two sugar molecules, such as glucose or fructose, bonded together. But the beauty of plants could not be without their ability to produce complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are strings of more than two molecules of glucose bonded together. Fiber and starch are examples of complex carbohydrates. The key difference between them is how they are bonded together.
Starches are cut up into individual glucose rings again easily by our bodies by an enzyme called amylase. The funny thing about enzymes like amylase is that thy can be very efficient, but they can also be very specific. Therefore, if plants twist the bonds around to produce fiber instead of starch, our enzyme does not work. So while we can easily cut glucose molecules apart with our enzymes, we are unable to break down fiber. Therefore, this undigested fiber moves along to our large intestine.
Unlike us, some microorganisms do have the enzyme to break down fiber. They are natural inhabitants to our large intestines, and when fiber passes along they go to work breaking down the fiber and fermenting the resulting glucose, producing gas. Some shorter chains of fiber, known as oligosaccharides, are more easily fermented. These oligosaccharides are common in foods like beans, hence their musical reputation.
The bottom line: fiber is simply a string of sugars which we cannot digest, but is fermented by microorganisms which produce gas.

How harmful is BPA, really? Maybe that’s the wrong question…

Last month, a group of researchers published findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the connection between certain diseases and levels of BPA in the urine. This information is causing concern and confusion for many people as it is on the heels of a seemingly contradictory statement by the Food and Drug Administration.
BPA, or bisphenol A, is a chemical commonly used in certain plastic products used commonly in food packaging and reusable water bottles and baby bottles. Products containing this compound have been voluntarily pulled from shelves in retail stores in Canada, Europe and the United States. Some large manufacturers such as Rubbermaid, due to consumer concern, have even taken an active approach to letting consumers know which of their products contain BPA. Follow this link for more information:
There is no dispute over the harmfulness of BPA. Contrary to dozens of internet articles and blogs, the FDA never said that BPA is safe. They simply are holding the position that the levels of BPA in food containers pose no scientifically proven threat to the U.S. population. So why the fuss?
Well, for example, the study mentioned above shows a strong correlation of BPA levels in the urine with self-reported diagnoses of heart disease and diabetes in a very large sample of the American population. This is a solid association, but no association was shown between BPA levels and self-reported diagnoses of cancer, arthritis, bronchitis and a list of other diseases. Also, this type of research shows associations, not cause and effect. Though these results attempt to answer old questions, they more effectively raise new ones.
1) Could there be a better association between cancer and BPA level if the correlation included those already deceased due to cancer, instead of simply those reporting a diagnosis of cancer?
2) If the particular types of cancer were separated, would there be correlations of some with BPA level, camouflaged by those less affected when combined together?
3) Are these significant levels of BPA coming from our food packaging and reusable plastic bottles? (The FDA says no…)
4) If significantly harmful levels of BPA are not coming from food packaging and reusable plastic bottles, where are they coming from?
Some other sources of BPA include dental fillings, epoxies and even household dust. Though the risk of acquiring significant BPA levels from environmental exposure is disputed, so is the risk of acquiring those levels from our food containers. It obviously must be coming from somewhere.
Bottom line: There is no proof that our food containers are the sole source of dangerous levels of BPA, but they are under suspicion as a mere part of the problem.

October 7, 2008


It so often seems that everyone is looking for a simple answer to their health questions. I’m here to tell you what you don’t want to hear: the simple answer is that there isn't always a simple answer. The light is neither on nor off, it's on a dimmer switch. There is nothing concrete in the road except the curbs on either side, but there is everything in between which qualifies as the middle of the road. If there were simple answers, research would be a cakewalk and grad school would go by so much more quickly.

One of my professors told me to always state my assumptions. He would ask how many frogs the Earth would be made of, were it made of frogs. Without laying out context such as how large a frog is or it’s density, which we would have to assume, there is no answer to the question. This is a good way of looking at science. Without trying to estimate and assume in the first place, we cannot be expected to come up with any other answers.
This blog will try to look at answers to challenging questions and put them in the most straightforward terms possible. It is my job to be not only a translator, but also an extra set of eyes which see it from another perspective.